Heat Heroes

When Temperatures Rise, These Houstonians Come to the Rescue

One air-conditioned afternoon, water save, and snow cone at a time.

By Angela Cabotaje and Geneva Diaz May 11, 2023

For Caitlin Hirst, a day at the water park means being ready to save lives.

Image: Nicki Evans

Ah, summer: That time of year when we have every excuse to seek out water escapes and ice cream by the gallon. It's leisure season and we know it. But when the mercury goes up, a small subset of Houstonians jump into work mode to save our sanity and, sometimes, our lives.

Typhoon Texas’s Caitlin Hirst Is Ready to Save Lives

On any given weekend, in the sweltering sizzle of a Houston summer, as many as 10,000 people flood into Typhoon Texas Waterpark in Katy. Patrons zoom down the pink Snake Pit slide, wind around the lazy river, and plunge into the 375,000-gallon wave pool. Caitlin Hirst and her 250-person water safety team are responsible for every single one of them.

Hirst, Typhoon Texas’s operations manager, is only 19 years old. But her age belies her dedication to the job. “When I first got on the [lifeguard] stand and I saw people entering my area, that’s when it clicked for me,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m responsible for these people. There’s no one here to help me.’”

She got her start as a lifeguard at Typhoon Texas in 2020, quickly moving up the ranks to leadership. Now Hirst personally certifies every member of the water safety staff before they actually set foot in the water park.

Safety protocols dictate every lifeguard must be able to visually scan a designated water zone within 10 seconds and reach a person in distress within 20 seconds. To time themselves, they practice on a floating dummy named Timmy. On top of that, lifeguards must know CPR, first aid, and spinal injury protocol. They have to be able to clear guests from metal slide towers in case of lightning. During Hirst’s first summer on the job, there was a tornado.

On weekends, the Typhoon Texas team averages around 10 saves a day. On slower weekdays, when they get only around 5,000 guests, it’s more like three saves. Most rescues are in the wave pool, Hirst adds, where the water is deeper than six feet. “As soon as [lifeguards] see that struggle, they jump in.”

For leadership members, like Hirst, the work extends beyond just ensuring the well-being of water park guests. She also checks on lifeguards every 30 minutes, refilling water bottles, offering sunscreen, even spritzing staffers on particularly scorching days. Heat exhaustion happens within seconds, she says, so the vigilance isn’t just for show. And that’s just fine for Hirst.

“I had so much respect for lifeguards growing up,” she says. “I really admired how much it wasn’t just sitting and watching water—it was also enforcing rules and preventing drowning, and I really wanted to be a part of that.”

For the past 15 years, Sylvia Espinosa, the assistant customer service manager for HPL’s Central Library, has protected those seeking refuge from the city’s scorching temperatures.

Image: Nicki Evans

When the Heat Hits, Houston Public Library Invites You In

When temperatures reach triple digits in Houston (108 Fahrenheit, to be exact) for two days in a row, the city activates its Public Health Heat Emergency Plan. The plan recommends that people who don’t have access to air-conditioning, or who are at higher risk of health problems during heat waves, seek shelter at municipal recreation centers—including Houston Public Library branches.

For more than 23 years, Houston native Sylvia Espinosa, the assistant customer service manager for HPL’s Central Library, has helped residents access a variety of library services, and for the past 15 years, she’s protected those seeking refuge from the city’s scorching temperatures.

“[Last year] when we were open as a cooling center, I would describe it as among the best of my career,” Espinosa says. “The gratitude from fellow Houstonians experiencing connection and a sense of peace in a safe place was heartwarming.”

Since the Central Library is the largest HPL facility and has the most convenient and accessible bus routes, it's able to host the most people during designated cooling center days. “We simply provide a place where people can get out of a hard situation and hang out in a place where they can cool down and relax,” Espinosa says. Offerings include “movies, board games, and, of course, books so that there’s something to do to stay entertained.”

Only the first floor of the library is open as a cooling center, so that the staff can keep an eye out for anyone experiencing heat exhaustion and for medics to assist, if needed. HPL also partners with the Houston Health Department and the Office of Emergency Management so that Espinosa and her staff can provide customers with water. HPL’s Central Library saw 163 people in one day alone last June. With so many people looking for help, Espinosa says the library is able to adapt to become a perfect place to provide comfort to those who need it most.

“We’re not just a library; we’re a building that acts as a safe haven for our customers,” Espinosa says. And when that happens, she adds, many of those traditional library guidelines aren’t so strict. “We’re a bit more relaxed when it comes to our library rules. For example, eating is not normally allowed, but when we’re open as a cooling center, we have a designated space for that.”

Even when in “cooling station” mode, other library services are still available. Crucially, guests can still obtain a library card and check out books. “I’m grateful that we’re able to provide this service, as the whole purpose of a library is to provide assistance,” Espinosa says. “Being able to offer all of the resources [we do] and help people is what I love and what keeps me coming back.”

Yesenia Garcia knows the power of a simple treat and how it can turn someone’s entire day around.

Image: Nicki Evans

How a Mom-Run Business Helps Boost Summer Spirits

Yesenia Garcia knows the power of a simple treat and how it can turn someone’s entire day around. Especially in the summer, when the sweltering heat can fuel anger and frustration. So when weary customers stumble upon her Unicorn Snow Cone stand in Spring Branch, it’s like finding a little taste of heaven. “It cools you from the inside out,” Garcia says of the delightfully basic-in-a-good-way snow cone. “It’s straight-up ice in your body, which is so satisfying.”

Garcia and her Unicorn Snow Cones have been cooling tempers for years now, ever since a fateful day when an old snow cone shop she and her family looked forward to visiting seemed to just melt away. As a mom of three boys, Garcia, along with her husband, spent many summer Sundays after church standing in line at their favorite snow cone trailer—a hole-in-the-wall spot with no signage—at the corner of West Little York and Barker Cypress Road. One day they drove by and the place had vanished. Initially, it was a huge disappointment. Then Garcia saw it as an opportunity.

“When it’s so hot out, people want to consume something [cold],” Garcia says. “And with my family’s love of snow cones, it was an obvious decision to start our own business.”

In May 2019, Garcia got serious about snow cones. She spent six weeks working on permits, searching for a food truck, and educating herself about the best ice machines, which flavors and ingredients are the healthiest, and how to do it all with the least environmental impact. By Fourth of July, Unicorn Snow Cones was open for business. It was an immediate hit with the community.

“It all sort of snowballed into reality—literally,” Garcia says. “We use a New Orleans–style ice machine, famous for making super-soft shaved ice, just like snowballs.” As for the flavors, she eschews preservatives and makes her own syrup flavors with simple ingredients: 100 percent cane sugar, purified water, and concentrate.

Some of the most popular flavors are fruity and tart Dino Magic and Fairy Dust, cotton candy meets bubble gum and Dreamsicle. Unicorn finishes it off with a signature topping: a cloud of whipped cream and rainbow stripe of candy.

As for the food truck itself, well, it’s hard to miss: all pink with a unicorn illustration next to the order window. Most times you’ll find Garcia or her mom, Queta Vasques, making and delivering fresh snow cones to guests. “My mom is the prep lady and makes all the flavors.”

Unicorn Snow Cones does parties, festivals, and events all over Houston, and often parks out near Shadow Oaks Recreation Association, in Spring Branch, and at YMCA summer camps. “Typically, we just follow the party,” Garcia says.

Usually when they do festivals and events in the summer, they have the longest line. “Not only is it an immediate relief from the heat,” Garcia says, “but the bright colors of the snow cones and the flavors we make seem to boost spirits on hot summer days.”

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